Pressure and Obsession in the Films of David Fincher

“I NEED to know who he is… I need to look him in the eye and I need to know that it’s him”
Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) in Zodiac

Piers McCarthy
February 2012 / November 15, 2018

Chapter 2: Seven
Chapter 3: Zodiac

Zodiac tells the true-life-story of one of the most famous unsolved crime cases in American history. The film begins with the devastating shooting of two teenagers and the killer’s confession through a phone call with the police, coinciding with a letter to a newspaper. The infamous letter becomes one of many – holding within its text a series of puzzling clues to the identity of the serial killer, “Zodiac”. Fincher focuses on the San Francisco Chronicle journalists, Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr) and Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), and police investigator Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo). All three, and especially Graysmith, pursue the case with an obsessive interest; acquiring useful leads, red herrings and personal, social and institutional issues along their weary road of inquiry.

Much like the opening of every Fincher film, Zodiac’s pre-credit and title sequence sets the tone for the remainder of the movie. The first scene illustrates one aspect of the presentation of pressure – the menacing presence of Zodiac; exemplified by his brutal assault on Mike Mageau (Lee Norris) and the chilling murder of Darlene Ferrin (Ciara Hughes). The scene that follows represents the other notion of pressure that is pivoted around the ‘productivity demands… [of] a work group’; focusing on the neurotic character Robert Graysmith and his position at the San Francisco Chronicle.[1] The two scenes are tangentially linked with an aerial shot of San Francisco – demonstrating the evil force that lurks omnisciently within the area and that will soon envelop the entire city in dread and panic. The opening additionally reveals how time is precious and fleeting – a key thematic in channelling both pressure and obsession within the narrative. Fincher demonstrates this immediately by showing both the teenagers hastily driving toward “someplace quiet” and the sudden shooting of the pair. What is more, the credit sequence, with the rhythmic, energetic use of Santana’s “Soul Sacrifice” and the cross-cutting of Graysmith and the Zodiac letter travelling through the San Francisco Chronicle building, reflects a sense of action and eventfulness. Before the editorial meeting, we get one final glance at the letter snaking its way through the building and Graysmith’s compulsive awareness to everything around him. With all this, Fincher expertly highlights the key figures and taut ambience of the world of Zodiac.

2007. Zodiac 01

Whilst Zodiac contains an assortment of similarities to Seven (the themes, the content and the atmosphere) the detective and killer personas generally differ. Despite Graysmith and the Zodiac having a connection, it is not as evident as Somerset’s and Doe’s who are, as Richard Dyer writes, ‘intellectual, painstaking, absorbed; and both have a consciousness of sin’.[2] Graysmith is innocent and childlike (his naive answer to the sarcastic questioning of his “boy scout” qualities – “Eagle Scout, actually. First class” – reminds us of this) and miles apart from the nefarious, mature persona we perceive the Zodiac to have. The only divergence away from this depiction of Zodiac is his purposeful misspelling of words in his letters – yet these are considered elements of his messages, there to confuse and unsettle readers. What does link the two villains is their obsessive need to inform the public of their acts and to create a puzzle for people to solve and mull over. The two films play on the audience’s desire ‘to know the answer, the narrative to be completed… [and to] experience… [an] end’ – yet both are indefinite about the closure of events, especially Zodiac.[3]

Graysmith’s obsession to discover the killer’s identity is immensely greater than Mills and Somerset’s, who are presented with the killer’s identity by the person himself. The investigators and audience of Zodiac become arguably more frustrated by the lack of answers than that of Seven’s, and it is made obvious how ‘obsession… [is] the only defence against a world that is beyond our full understanding, declaring that knowledge lies in the process, not in completion’.[4] Procedure becomes the major vehicle for most of the film’s drama and mystery. Understanding the elusive killer’s proceedings barely develops a solution and the ‘work pressure…[becomes] associated with low cohesive behaviour’.[5] The killer’s attacks are wrapped in a veil of enigma and conducted in a strange manner leaving Graysmith, Toschi and Avery stumped for hours, days, months and years on end.

The episodic form of Zodiac constantly reminds the audience of the extent of the investigation’s duration – and the additional work done by Graysmith once the case loses precedence. It also serves as a reminder to the unpredictable nature of Zodiac. Once Toschi realises that the killer is “breaking the pattern”, the painfully intense impression of foreboding manifests itself within the characters’ and audience’s minds. Furthermore, ‘the bulk of the film is a procession of failures, frustrations, and dead ends’ that, without having much consequence, lead to the feeling of anticipation and dread.[6] This is reinforced by Graysmith’s loyalty to the case and his questioning of dozens of people. Towards the end of the film, the lack of answers leads him to darker, more ominous realms of investigation. The tensest scene with Graysmith travelling to Mr. Vaughn’s (Charles Fleischer) house is preceded by an argument with his wife over his motivation for involving himself so fervently within the investigation. “Why do you need to do this? Why?” asks Melanie (Chloë Sevigny), “Because nobody else will” answers Graysmith. His obsession clearly stated by “I need to know” adds to the pressure of the Vaughn-household scene. The audience becomes aware of the more clichéd elements of the scene (the isolated location, the dark, rainy setting, the quietly menacing man, the thought of someone else in the “empty” house, and the near-pitch black basement) that Graysmith almost does not comprehend due to his diligence in discovering. The scarcity of the house with the Fincherian oligochromatic colour scheme, comes as a warning; reminiscent of ‘the best horror cinema… [that] evokes terror from the audience through our identification with characters who have lost their bearings’.[7] The moment where Graysmith is told by Vaughn that the handwriting, thought to be the closest to the Zodiac’s and believed to be Rick Marshall’s, is in fact his own sends a chill down the spine of the audience and down Graysmith’s (perfectly realised in Gyllenhaal’s eyes). The foreboding is extended by the notion that Vaughn’s house includes a basement – another clue to the identity of Zodiac. The scene then begins to resemble a regular horror film, with Fincher pushing the camera closer and closer to the panicked face of Graysmith. As Mark Browning writes, ‘We sense the dread as Graysmith follows Vaughn down into a shadowy basement, lit only by three 40-watt bulbs and low angles highlight Alien-style pipe-work behind him’.[8] The scene epitomizes Fincher’s expert handling of fear and horror, much like the claustrophobic pressure of Panic Room, the gloomy environment of Seven and the isolated space in Alien3.

2007. Zodiac 02
“Not many people have basements in California”

Aside from the terrifying scenes of Zodiac, there remain the slow yet fascinating scenes of dialogue and investigation. In these sequences, Fincher analyses the interesting interaction between Graysmith, Avery, Toschi and Melanie.  Dave Toschi is the man in the position Graysmith would like to be; he has the access to files, crime scenes and correspondence with suspects. However, Toschi’s obsession is far less pronounced than that of the eager Chronicle cartoonist and Toschi’s years on the job and slight cynicism prevents the film from becoming centred on two conflicting obsessive investigators. With Graysmith providing alternate evidence and theories and Toschi discovering his own through his line of work, it leaves both characters exhausted by varieties of case deviations and decisions. Thus, leaving them in need of closing the case; ‘After the raid of the trailer, Toschi declares, “You know what the worst part of this is? I can’t tell if I wanted it to be Allen so bad because I actually thought it was him or I just want all this to be over.” This is increasingly the motivation behind Graysmith’s own sleuthing to the point where in visiting Darlene Ferrin… in prison, he screams “Just say it!” desperate for her to confirm that it was Rock at the painting party, almost bullying the name out of her’.[9] Graysmith and Toschi do have some help with their investigation (Melanie being Graysmith’s spouse and collaborator) and both lose that person’s aid. On his own, Graysmith finally reaches out to Toschi, in an attempt to ‘getting close… like an obsessive fan’, wanting respect from the officer and seeking assistance with his research that is underway because, as Graysmith states, “I just want to help”.[10] The person that helps, comforts, and acts as a friend to Toschi is his police partner, WilliamBillArmstrong (Anthony Edwards). Interestingly, like Melanie, Armstrong sees the obsessive nature of his partner taking over their personality and decides to transfer away. Singlehandedly searching, Graysmith and Toschi then decide to work together, although Graysmith badgering Toschi prevents the two becoming as close as with one another.

In the full scheme of events in Zodiac, nearly every character is possessed with an ability to alienate or contrastingly, become alienated from someone. As the details of the prime suspect Arthur Leigh Allen (John Carroll Lynch) emerge, the significance of the marginalised character trait highlights itself even more. Allen lives in a grubby, small trailer and comes from a “troubled” background – he has, over the years, separated himself from society. Avery, Toschi and Graysmith all inflict a pressure on themselves to do good in the investigation (Avery veering drastically off course) and in doing so, lose their jobs, companionship and sensibilities. Character estrangement in the film expands into the filmmaking process of Zodiac itself, with Fincher having mildly estranged himself during filming from cast members such as Downey Jr – ‘Mr. Downey affectionately called him a disciplinarian, while Mr. Gyllenhaal, saying that as a director he “paints with people,” added, “It’s tough to be a color.”’.[11] The personalities of the film clash just as equally as the makers of it. As Browning writes, ‘There is the sense that Fincher shares some of Graysmith’s obsessive nature and the “need to know” is an important part of his nature and creative process too’.[12] There are multiple examples referring to Zodiac’s actors having ‘endured multiple takes of 70 shots and beyond’ and Fincher becoming infamous with his perfectionism.[13] Whilst this was not dramatic and scathing to the crew, it does show process and creation conflicting fantastically within two realms of reality.

The entanglement of life and work is one more aspect of Zodiac to draw attention to a sense of pressure. In one stylistically-laden scene, Fincher shows the ‘digitally generated symbols – from the killer’s coded messages – hang in the air. A passing of time, growing obsession and a sense of panic are all deftly conveyed in a few seconds’.[14] It is Graysmith who perceives the Zodiac’s writings coating the walls and hovering through the building of the San Francisco Chronicle – leaving the audience anxious to the state of his mind and the growing succession of Zodiac incidents. Graysmith’s fanatical involvement in the case then extends to contact with corroborating police departments and to working with “colleagues” who are in fact his children. Ignorant to the lives he jeopardises – those of his wife, children and Avery (supporting Avery’s decision to try and track down Zodiac) – Graysmith is lucky to get out of harm’s way and to have Melanie still helpful towards his cause.

Through the intermittent form and with time-lapse examples such as “… days later” subtitles and the construction of the Transamerica pyramid, the audience understands the monumental journey all the characters have been through. The penultimate scene validates this notion further by suggesting how, ‘If the hardware scene does not take place until 1983, it suggests that Graysmith has been searching for Allen in all the intervening years. The fact that he has written two books on the subject and is still talking about the case nearly 40 years later suggests the continuation of a lifelong obsession’.[15] Without a standard conclusion to the detective story, Graysmith’s obsession seemingly pays off in narrative terms. He uncovers a piece of evidence that gives him another one on one with his model investigator, Toschi. Plus, he finds Toschi to be in agreement with him; accepting Graysmith’s facts and deductions is the last of Toschi’s role, almost announcing it to be Allen as much as the proceeding scenes do. The penultimate scene of the film shows Graysmith looking Allen in the eyes, nodding knowingly to himself that it was Allen all along. Fincher then finalises the movie with an aged Mike Mageau (Jimmi Simpson) giving “at least an eight [out of ten]” figure of positive identification to the man who shot him way back in 1969, pinpointing Allen as the man.

2007. Zodiac 03

Ending the film with a couple of shots of Graysmith’s book featured around the airport and in the investigator’s briefcase, and with the final reporting credits, the film denotes the importation of text. As shown throughout the film, ‘Fincher is fascinated by the idea that the Zodiac’s compulsion, ultimately, wasn’t killing, but communicating with the Chronicle. “That became far more gratifying and seductive than what he started out doing”’.[16] Even with the pressure created from the gruesome, nerve-wracking and shadowy scenes of the Zodiac stalking and striking, it is the words of Zodiac, Avery and Graysmith that add drama to the film. As it was in Seven, the ‘cerebral detective, looking to the resources of art and literature to understand human behaviour’ is found in the narrative of Zodiac to an obsessive extent.[17]

Chapter 4: The Social Network


1. Klein, Workers Under Stress, p.7
2. Dyer, Seven, p.11
3. Browning David Fincher: Films That Scar, p.85
4. Mike Miley, “Deciphering the Indecipherable: Procedure as Art in Fincher’s Zodiac” in Bright Lights Film Journal,Issue 67, February 2010
5. Klein, Workers Under Stress, p.90
6. Browning David Fincher: Films That Scar, p.74
7. Tony Magistrale, Abject Terrors: surveying the modern and postmodern horror film (New York, USA: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc, 2005) p.xiv
8. Browning, David Fincher: Films That Scar, p.85
9. Browning, David Fincher: Films That Scar, p.84
10. Ibid, p.82
11. David M. Halbfinger, “Lights, Bogeyman, Action” in The New York Times, 18 February, 2007
12. Browning, David Fincher: Films That Scar,  pp.150-1
13. Halbfinger, “Lights, Bogeyman, Action”
14. Pierce, “The Devil is on the Detail”
15. Browning, David Fincher: Films That Scar, p.59
16. Pierce, “The Devil is on the Detail”
17. Browning, David Fincher: Films That Scar, p.59

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